As a dutiful father of a young child, I have watched A Charlie Brown Christmas too many times already this season. Amazingly, I still like it, though it’s no thanks to the characters. In fact, now that I almost have it memorized, I can say with authority that the Peanuts characters are all horrible people.
Charlie Brown is a depressive. Lucy is violent and sexually predatory, yet maintains a side gig doling out psychiatric advice for a nickel. Linus clutches his blanket and shakes like Danny Torrance from The Shining as he recites biblical passages with a full awareness of his own futility. Snoopy is not “mercurial,” or “imaginative”—he’s an unrepentant sociopath of the Talented Mr. Ripley variety who sells out his boy Charlie time and again: When Charlie gets the opportunity to turn his life around and direct the school play, Snoopy actually boos his introduction to the cast. “Man’s best friend,” is all Chuck can muster, but I’ll say it: What an asshole.
Had that scraggly tree Charlie picked out been loved for what it was, we’d have had a moral on our hands. But instead, the Peanuts gang (and let’s be clear—it’s a gang) loot Snoopy’s award-winning doghouse, tart the tree up to look exactly like everything Charlie Brown hates, and present it to him. But—get this—Charlie Brown loves it! Of course! Because Negative Attention Is Better Than None at All, Charlie Brown. As they join together in a wide-mouthed version of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” any hope for a message is demolished. Conform, consume. Buy that pink aluminum tree, quote scripture to an empty auditorium, and sing the pain away.
And yet the show doesn’t come off the rails. In fact, it’s kind of beautiful, thanks to the counter-mood set by West Coast jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi, whose inclusion in the series is a true masterstroke in the history of music supervision. I don’t think it’s a stretch to place early Peanuts next to John Williams scores and the Goodfellas soundtrack: The marriage of sound and picture creates an emotional resonance that the script and its characters might not (um, do not) have otherwise. For a captive viewer like myself, it’s that resonance that keeps me from throwing my child’s dollhouse at the TV set.
“I want to write standards, not just hits.”—Vince Guaraldi
A Charlie Brown Christmas almost never made it to TV. The Peanuts comic strip was huge in the early 60s, but CBS passed on the pilot, feeling it was slow, choppy, and kind of weird. Coca-Cola stepped in to sponsor the show, and the 1965 debut came in second in the ratings behind Bonanza. UnlikeBonanza, however, the Vince Guaraldi soundtrack remains a seasonal bestseller 50 years later.
The show has a strange tempo inherent within it: the child actors, for one, don’t sound like they actually know what they’re saying, so you can hear all kinds of cuts and edits in their dialogue. In part, it’s that endearing choppiness that Guaraldi’s trio smooths over. Sally’s almost incoherent line, “All I want is what I have coming to me. All I want is my fair share,” actually settles into normalcy when placed in Vince’s cool jazz context. Without the music, it would sound like she’s having a stroke. This same dynamic occurs throughout the 22-minute show: the music actually fixes problems simply by giving the scenes a groove.
Guaraldi’s interpretation of winter is as a sublime and meditative season, and it’s a true Californian who can maintain such a picturesque remove on the subject. In “Skating,” his right hand conjures falling snow, and in “Christmas Time Is Here” the elongated chords stretch across the bars like that frozen pond the kids are skating (and practically killing each other) on. He’s an impressionist that swings, Bill Evans with a smile, and in his playing he teases out the best qualities of Schroeder (skill), Linus (poetry), and Snoopy (cool). In our present, AutoTuned age of digital recording, the conscious decision to keep a slightly-out-of-tune children’s choir on the soundtrack evokes empathy and collective nostalgia—we’ve all been in those wonky, imperfect school plays at some point in our lives. Even the crudely drawn animation swells into three-dimensionality against the ambient reverbs and acoustic room sounds achieved during recording.
“I don’t think I’m a great piano player.”—Vince Guaraldi
If you are to purchase A Charlie Brown Christmas off Amazon Prime, you get two Post-Guaraldi Peanuts specials that prove how desperately the entire operation needed him. Porny 80s saxophones, nods to Flashdance (the all-you-need-to-know title: FlashBeagle) and a Peppermint Patty exercise video that reimagines Tony Basil’s “Hey Mickey” are beneath the franchise Guaraldi helped build. Those latter specials are its Vegas years, its cash grab, its visible decline. Don’t watch them. They will make you cry and cry.
Instead, watch A Charlie Brown Christmas. With Vince at the wheel, winter is rumination, the kids are forgivable, and the show itself is a gentle, intimate, even private, experience. More than any character, it’s Guaraldi who conjures it all while poking a hopeful ray of Northern California sunshine into an otherwise bleak, barely benign version of Lord of the Flies.
You’re a good man, Vince Guaraldi.
Mike Errico is a recording artist, writer, producer, music supervisor, and lecturing professor, with both critically acclaimed releases and extensive composition credits in film and TV. He has taught songwriting at Yale and Wesleyan, and is currently teaching at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. In addition to his music career, Errico was senior online editor of Blender magazine, and is a contributor to Guitar World, ASCAP’s Playback magazine, and Cuepoint.